Bright Lights Film Journal

Reactionary Riffs: The Failures of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

“The final result of this pretentiousness is The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman film in name only, a joyless endeavor that ignores its heritage and puts on airs to conceal the half-baked politics and juvenile head games hiding behind its dark and scowling mask.”

In the earliest Batman comics, Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered when they take him to go see the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro, the film that ultimately inspires Wayne to become a masked vigilante. In Batman Begins, the first and best film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the movie theater is changed to an ornate opera house (still located, inconceivably, in a violent slum), a change that simultaneously obfuscates the cinematic roots of the Batman franchise and creates an illusion of artsy classiness.

This sort of sleight of hand is repeated throughout the series, with Nolan consistently treating the source material as something that needs to be elevated above its pulp origins rather than respected; uninterested in the Batman universe and the film noir iconography, he lumps in with it beyond their value as a convenient pop culture shorthand. The final result of this pretentiousness is The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman film in name only, a joyless endeavor that ignores its heritage and puts on airs to conceal the half-baked politics and juvenile head games hiding behind its dark and scowling mask.

The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is little more than a shuffling together of the first two films: some supervillains plunge Gotham City into chaos with a doomsday weapon du jour, recreating the terrorist plot of Batman Begins with a modus operandi closer to that of the Joker in The Dark Knight. The title asserts that the film is primarily about Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) overcoming personal limitations and rising up to a new level of heroism, but there is no real change in his characterization over the course of the film beyond dropping a sad sack routine halfway through. Wayne spends most of the film out of costume, and his infrequent appearances as Batman are welcome but lackluster; there are more fight scenes in the first half-hour of Batman Begins than in this entire film, his costume looks more preposterous than usual when Nolan bathes it in unkind sunlight, and the voice Bale uses for Batman has changed from a menacing rasp to incomprehensible slurring, as if he has a head cold and forgot to drill nostril holes in his bat-mask. Bale is as stiff and awkward as he has always been as Batman, but he is especially unconvincing during the film’s dreary second half, during which he fumbles through a series of plot twists and turns that are supposed to leave him heart-wrenched but really just seem to puzzle him. The World’s Greatest Detective also doesn’t do much detective work, sorting out all his mysteries by having computers or his butler (Michael Caine) solve them for him. The film’s focus on Bruce Wayne as the “real” character is rather odd considering that the ending of the first film flat out said that Wayne was Batman’s “mask” and not the other way around, and Bale’s revival of his hollow, sociopathic mannerisms from American Psycho when playing Wayne seem to confirm this, yet the Caped Crusader spends most of the film in the closet while his “mask” goes through the motions of an unconvincing character arc.

The female characters are likewise thrown by the wayside. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is never called by name and doesn’t even own a cat. She’s more like the Silver Age Batwoman than the feline-obsessed dominatrix jewel thief, portrayed as a down-on-her-luck damsel in financial distress whose sass can’t hide that she really just needs a powerful man to come and nudge her in the right direction, turning love-interest-cum-sidekick just in time for the final act. She doesn’t even gets to kick much ass until Batman loans her his motorcycle-mounted machine guns, just nailing a few guys in the groin with her stilettos. Even more egregious is how Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) — who, in the comics, is a deeply ambivalent character with whom Batman has a child and a checkered past — is reduced to a two-dimensional femme fatale, and not even a particularly enticing one. She is merely a seductress and betrayer of men motivated by an under-explored Electra complex, and her spidery sexual entanglements with Bruce Wayne feel token and unreal given how much more chemistry he has with Catwoman. It is also worth mentioning that Nolan’s fixation on father-son relationships all but erases two of the most important female characters in the Batman universe, Bruce Wayne’s mother and Barbara Gordon. Pearls belonging to Wayne’s mother are introduced as an important prop, but she herself is never characterized at all throughout the trilogy, even though the shadow of Wayne’s father looms large over everything, and Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) who becomes a feminist crimefighter in the Batgirl comics, has no presence whatsoever, replaced by Gordon’s son for the end of The Dark Knight and never mentioned at all in The Dark Knight Rises.

The only villain in the film Nolan seems to really care about is Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscle-bound mercenary with an inexplicable Gigeresque rebreather mask who is following in the footsteps of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), the terrorist mastermind in Batman Begins. The film’s two best scenes both focus on Bane: one is the opening action sequence, which seems out of place in a Batman story but is exhilarating nonetheless for its smart use of height and verticality, and the other is a one-on-one fistfight with Batman in the sewers of Gotham. With his face covered up, Hardy emotes entirely with subtle and not-so-subtle body language, carrying himself with a thuggish swagger that’s both erotic and terrifying. However, as with Heath Ledger’s mescaline lounge lizard Joker, the script does little to capitalize on the established material in the comics, or even to differentiate one villain from another. Bane and the Joker are distinct on the micro-level of performance, but they are largely interchangeable in terms of how they function in the narrative, both conducting massive social experiments with explosives and murder to prove a point to Batman about how base, fearful, and animalistic the people of Gotham really are. This is also essentially what the Scarecrow does, both in Batman Begins (Cillian Murphy, who turns up in both sequels for brief cameos) and in the comics, and it is rather different from the usual comic book schemes of the Joker and Bane. There are also a few scenes in The Dark Knight when the Joker infringes on the Riddler’s trademark calling card by leaving enigmatic clues predicting his next crime, and Bane gets a better joke in during the first five minutes of The Dark Knight Rises than the Joker did during an entire film (not that Nolan’s Joker laughed or joked all that much, anyway).

It points to the kind of conservative doublethink Nolan is engaged in with his Batman villains that he roots through the extensive rogue’s gallery of colorful supervillains and maniac gangsters to cherry-pick the small handful that can be reshaped into terrorists and traitors. The Dark Knight Rises can try to hide behind the ideological innocence of most superhero comics by presenting its main villain as a pre-established character, but Nolan’s Bane has next to nothing in common with his comic book counterpart. Gone are his Latino heritage and lucha libre mask, his addiction to psychosis-inducing steroids and his fixation on his childhood teddy bear. The fear, superstition, and misinformation that motivate his vendetta against Batman in the comics is replaced with an anti-American terrorist agenda carried over from Ra’s al Ghul, who was likewise rendered unrecognizable in Nolan’s films. The most fascinating Arab character in DC comics was, like Bane, whitewashed, both he and his daughter portrayed by white European actors. This is not to say that Nolan is racist in his casting choices, but, rather, that a deliberate obfuscation of ethnic background is employed to distract from the post-9/11 nationalistic allegories in play. The thinly veiled metaphor of terrorists trying to destroy an East Coast metropolis by spreading fear and panic in Batman Begins would be too on the nose if the head terrorist were an Arab. In The Dark Knight Rises, with Bane’s non-white ethnicity and polyglot nature swept aside, we’re left with a sinister ideologue who uses Leftist revolutionary rhetoric, anti-Wall Street media blitzes, and constant repetitions of key phrases like “the people” and “hope” to fool a gullible public into letting him run their society into the ground.

Of course, we’re never quite sure what the people of Gotham City make of all this, as Nolan doesn’t see fit to allow any of them screen time. Aside from cops, the sole exceptions are a handful of Dickensian male orphans and street urchins, the likes of which have been cropping up throughout the trilogy as both innocent symbols of Gotham’s poor (an infantilizing attitude that the film never questions) and obvious reiterations of the young Bruce Wayne, re-affirming the film’s solipsistic premise that Wayne is the soul of the city. This dismissal of the general public wouldn’t be so detrimental if the main plot didn’t make so many gestures at economic inequality and class warfare. Batman Begins, which fires on the same basic ideological registers, at least spent a fair amount of time creating an atmosphere of desperation in the city’s steamy slums, even if the only glimpse of humanity we get there are some standard ethnic types with a few lines each. Nolan’s view of Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises is basically undemocratic: the only people who count are Bruce Wayne, his loved ones, a bus full of orphans, violent criminals, and the police. Even the reforms that supposedly cleaned up the city between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have nothing to do with social programs or common people, the rampant ghetto crime and hobo villages having been swept away by a single, tough-on-crime harsh sentencing law.

The police still don’t count for much in the big picture, though, even though much of the film is mired in a tedious police procedural that seems to be taking place in an entirely different film altogether. The kinds of games Nolan plays let him dismiss the police force as an ineffectual, squabbling bureaucracy in one scene and delight in watching them march into medieval battle in their spotless blue uniforms in the next. In either case, cops only seem to matter when they’re in a mob, either as warriors or hostages, with the only exceptions being the Randian individualists who ultimately break with the rules of lawful police work: Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s inside man who covered up multiple murders in the previous film for political ends, and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a disillusioned, street-smarts kind of guy who is set up as Batman’s would-be successor. There’s also a high-ranking police official played by Matthew Modine, but the character is so thinly drawn that he barely qualifies as an individual at all, functioning as more of a representative of police foolishness in general. The film only really has room enough for its single caped hero, and now that the trilogy has concluded, its lessons in Bush era heroism are apparent: it is all right to lie to the public if it is for their own good (and as long as you feel sort of bad about it later); true heroes are willing to let everyone hate them if it means they do not have to suffer any consequences for their illegal actions; and faking self-sacrifice is as good as actual self-sacrifice, especially when it means you get to be loved as a martyr and live a life of unburdened luxury.

On top of its Bush era superheroics, the film piles numerous references to A Tale of Two Cities, the storming of the Bastille, and the Reign of Terror, stopping just short of having Bane guillotine a banker. This could work in the context of an ordinary Batman comic, one with a certain amount of postmodern silliness, but the relentlessly grim tone and misguided attempts at realism leave no room for silliness and these allusions loudly call out for The Dark Knight Rises to be taken seriously as a “literary” superhero film. However, while Dickens was politically sophisticated and attentive to both the valid impulses behind the French Revolution and its ultimate failings, Nolan simply uses a few quotations and plot devices to prop up his flimsy narrative, letting Dickens do all the hard work for him. There’s a parallel between Nolan’s condescending attempts to elevate superhero comics with loftier material and Batman’s self-appointed mission to save the poor of Gotham with his private armory of high tech gear (figuratively and literally slumming it), but what is more telling is how this disrespects the supposedly loftier material as well, using it as a mere tool rather than learning from it. It’s another form of doublethink that lets Nolan borrow without paying homage, to use the work of others as a crutch while acting as though he’s standing on his own two feet.

Nolan’s career is founded on applying this method to film noir, using genre conventions and familiar iconography to bring to life his screenplays (all of which he has at least co-written, usually with his brother Jonathan Nolan) without actually showing any real reverence for the masters he borrows from. His first film, Following, is a sort of dime store Night and the City by way of Mike Hodges, but it’s the closest Nolan’s come to true noir, if only because its noir-like style was the result of limited funds and resources. His second, Memento, is a gripping B-movie thriller with a time-related gimmick in the vein of D.O.A., but it loses all appeal on a second viewing. His subsequent films have grown increasingly bombastic and their budgets have ballooned into the hundreds of millions, but their noir trappings have not grown beyond the cosmetic (the black hat Catwoman wears in a train station comes to mind) and Nolan’s sense of film history remains static.

His debt to Fritz Lang alone is tremendous: urban jungle environments in which solitary criminal fiends are hounded (M); mysterious criminal masterminds with uncanny abilities to predict the protagonists’ actions (the Dr. Mabuse films, Spies); caves and secret basements housing personal and social secrets (all Lang’s major films); prisons and tombs in the Orient as sites of personal growth (The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb); unraveling plot threads and exposition as primary interactions between protagonists solving a mystery (Spies, The Woman in the Moon). This doesn’t even account for how heavily his depiction of Gotham City derives from Metropolis, with a vertical stratification of urban space where the lower classes live in constant dimness and damp at the bottom (admittedly, this is most prominent in Batman Begins, co-written by Dark City screenwriter David S. Goyer; in The Dark Knight Rises, every street and neighborhood feels both completely disconnected from and identical to all the rest, as indistinct and interchangeable with one another as the characters). Much of Lang’s influence could have come to Nolan secondhand through film noir and so-called neo-noir, especially Lang’s own Hollywood crime thrillers and Blade Runner, but Bob Kane and Bill Finger drawing the Joker in Batman #1 to look like Conrad Veidt in Paul Leni’s silent Expressionist masterpiece The Man Who Laughs was a more honest and direct acknowledgment of early cinema’s place in the Batman universe than anything in Nolan’s trilogy.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare The Dark Knight Rises to a masterpiece like Metropolis, but they do have a few key things in common. Both were immensely hyped, big-budget, soft science fiction movies about apocalyptic events isolated to single cities that tried to tackle major issues of human suffering with simplistic allegory. However, Metropolis, for all its hamfisted symbolism, is a profoundly poetic film, while The Dark Knight Rises is prosaic in the extreme: flabby, syntactically rigid, and structurally predictable. Despite the zillion-dollar budgets and Nolan’s admirable commitment to practical special effects and traditional 2D film, his films remain aesthetically bland and rather lazily put together, especially compared to the work he borrows from. The script for The Dark Knight Rises is filled with plot holes, red herrings, loose ends, and unnecessary complications, an inattention to detail that’s made more unbearable by how blatantly it tells you what it’s about with easily identifiable trigger words (hope, mask, power, etc.) and how fussily it leads you by the nose (most insulting is when a character actually interrupts exposition to say “Listen up, this is the important part,” presumably to cue the audience to perk up). His mise on scène is extremely limited and conventional, as well: most conversations, for example, are shot in textbook shot reverse shot, subjects centered in the frame, with setting serving as little more than backdrops. There are a few notable exceptions — such as one scene where Bruce Wayne dances with Catwoman — but even the infrequent deviations from his usual narrow scope are generally unimaginative.

Likewise, while one of the primary draws of Batman comics is the various kinds of insanity on display among Batman’s villains, Nolan, unlike his film noir models, has no psychology. Inception gave us a world in which dreams operate according to mathematical algorithms and Newtonian physics, and The Prestige reduced the wonders of stage magic to a three-step formula (a premise that I suspect has something to do with Nolan’s rigid fixation on three-act structures and trilogies as geometrically perfect states of narrative construction). His Joker operated according to a small set of theoretical principles, and the few glimpses of fear-induced hallucination in Batman Begins were quickly dumped in favor of more domino effect plot strings. The primary subject of Nolan’s work seems to be his own fondness for deceiving his audience — Inception is largely a puzzle-box metaphor for Nolan’s puppetmaster powers as a director — and the gizmo logic with which he winds up his films leaves little room for spontaneity or neurosis, much less insanity.

Ultimately, the biggest indication of how much Nolan ignores film history may be in how sincerely his Batman films try break ground in the superhero genre by making it an avenue for serious film art, apparently unaware that this was accomplished in 1916. Louis Feuillade’s serial Judex, which follows a gadget-wielding masked vigilante who operates out of cave beneath a castle, is, like his Fantômas and Les Vampires, a complex and exciting hybrid of pulp crime fiction and experimental theater, predicting both the rise of superhero comics as well as the early French avant-garde movement. Fritz Lang was largely a student of Feuillade, and many of the more influential aspects of Lang’s films can themselves be traced back to Feuillade serials. Nolan is obsessed with the art of deception, but Feuillade’s cinema is the original cinema of deception, riddled with false identities, disguises, and elaborate, convoluted plots. While Nolan simply refuses to allow silliness of any kind in his Batman universe (thereby excluding the vast majority of what’s in the comics), Feuillade had a deep sense of kitsch and was able to balance it with his more serious and poetic impulses, thanks in part to a sharp sense of dramatic timing and a brilliant and unconventional eye for composition. Far from stuffy, Feuillade’s serials are still feel relevant and modern, entertaining romps that assume their audience is hip and clever. An average trade paperback Batman comic is truer to the spirit of Feuillade than Nolan’s films, with more intriguing image composition and greater insight into human nature, even with all the comic book silliness (The Long Halloween, Batman Black and White, and The Man Who Laughs are some personal favorites that come to mind, along with nearly all the Batman stories written by Grant Morrison). The pompous way The Dark Knight Rises takes itself so seriously only throws into relief how shallow and anemic its lofty pretensions really are. Even just for plain and simple kicks, I’ll still take Feuillade any day.